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2011 two CD release from the Progressive Rock singer/songwriter and former member of Spock's Beard. With the sequel to his 2003 album Testimony, Neal goes even deeper into unchartered musical and lyrical territory. Incorporating legendary drummer Mike Portnoy and bassist, Randy George, this breathtaking album is a Prog epic with depth that will dazzle and melodies that reach into the soul.
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There are the traditional Nealesque type of themes and overtures you'd expect from most of his albums, but for the most part, they are different enough to not sound stale or self-derivative. That being said, there are a few parts of the album are very much "been there, done that", like the Gentle Giant-type vocal piece in the track "Time Changer", however in that particular instance I get the sense that it's more an homage to that era of his career with Spock's Beard than a guy running out of new ideas. It's not a "perfect" album like "Bridge Across Forever" or "The Light" and there are a couple of tracks like Jayda that aren't quite on par with the rest of the album, but this is one of Neal's best solo efforts since the One/? albums.
I'd rank this album on par with Snow, Testimony and One. I'd also rank this album ahead of Sola Scriptura and his self-titled solo album, definitely ahead of Lifeline, Beware of Darkness and Kindness of Strangers.
All in all, highly recommended and some vintage Neal while still managing to sound fresh and exciting.
Update (7/14/2011) : Having now listened to the album at least 50 times or more since I got, I have to add a few things. Seeds of Gold is one of Neal's finest single "epic" pieces from any album he's been a part of. Everything flows beautifully from one section to the next and is very reminiscent of "At the end of the day" or "All of the above" which I consider to be 2 of Neal's finest works. Also, other than Jayda which I still consistently skip, the material on the first disk is even stronger than I first thought. Those two things combined have made me reconsider and I'm bumping the rating up to the full 5 stars it deserves. This album will definitely go down as one of Neal's best efforts in a very long time and I can't wait to hear what journey he'll take us on next.
Though not quite on the top level, Testimony 2 is a huge improvement over Morse's past couple of releases, including Songs from the Highway, the covers album, and the disappointing Lifeline. It picks up where the first album left off and continues to chronicle Neal Morse's spiritual journey. Supported by long-time friends, Mike Portnoy on drums and Randy George on bass, Neal Morse has also enlisted a plethora of other guest musicians to enrich his music. There is plenty of violin, cello, viola, and saxophone in the mix, as the album develops themes from the first Testimony disc and subtly glues them together. The music is varied as expected: there is the classically arranged "Mercy Street" that stands out for its use of strings and acoustic guitars; the whacky instrumental "Overture No. 4" with a strong rhythm presence; or the very personal "Jayda," a song about Morse's daughter who was born with a critical heart condition. Also in the mix are a wide range of elements ranging from comtemporary pop to gospel to soulful background vocals (both male and female).
That said, the album's highlights are the more progressive numbers. "Time Changer" sees Morse reuniting with his former bandmates from Spock's Beard. The complex vocal harmonies a la Gente Giant are in one word sublime. "Nighttime Collectors" captures the live feel of the band while maintaining a hard-rocking drive -- the instrumentation is so organic that you will never know when and how the beautiful electric guitar bleeds into the following track, "Time Has Come Today." The album's most emotive moment is "Jesus' Blood" -- Morse's singing is unmatched and drips with sheer emotion. He is the only singer in the world that can sing like Mike Tramp, a personal favourite of mine. The guitar solo here sends shivers down the spine, and it's perhaps the most beautiful solo of the year.
The second disc consists of three tracks independent of the concept of the album. "Absolute Beginner" is Neal Morse-style pop at its best with a catchy chorus you can sing along to right on first listen. "Supernatural" brings forth brilliant synth playing in its intro and a capella style vocals sung over distant acoustic guitars before a full-on melody is built on top of it. "Seeds of Gold" is something for his fans from Spock's Beard and Translatlantic. At over 25 minutes, it marries complex bass lines with tasteful drum beats as well as melodic guitar phrases slicing through mammoth soundscapes. Guesting with a solo is Steve Morse -- his playing is absolutely fantastic. Vintage keyboards dominate the mix while harmonized vocals are spread across the whole track with cascading melodies and nuanced rhythmic flow.
Testimony 2 proves that Neal Morse still has a lot to offer when he takes the time to develop his ideas and do what he does best: write strong, unforgettable melodies backed by top-notch instrumental performances.
Having gotten that out of the way, Neal has delivered another great slab of progressive rock that further cements his place as one of the top talents to ever emerge in the genre. Testimony 1 was new ground and risky, as Neal left his comfortable life with Spock's Beard behind to follow a calling he often questioned himself. After releasing a string of outstanding concept albums, he now returns to the story told back in 2003. For the most part, though, it's really more of a deeper look at the story already told, rather than a lot of new information further down the line of the narrative.
Neal is often accused of being to "samey" in his releases. Frankly, I find this kind of dumb criticism. An artist is who he is, and Neal doesn't sound like other artists to me. He's like the Christian rock version of Iron Maiden. You buy an album of theirs because you want more of what you already know you like. When Maiden deviated from the plan and "evolved" with a new singer, it was a disaster. Their comeback was fueled by a return to the classic form that people knew and loved.
There are some new things in T2, despite it very comfortably fitting in the cannon of Neal's work. Randy George's bass work really stands out, and the bass is superior to that on T1. This is a very accessible listen, without being poppy. The hooks set in quickly and it doesn't require a lot of patience for it to settle. This is due to the strong melodies provided. At times, it's a little dirtier in the musical timbres. It has some nice glances back to T1, without over trotting on familiar ground. The guys of Spock's Beard contribute guest vocals on a track that features that Gentle Giantish acappella things that are so cool. Guest vocalist Matthew Ward adds some nice background highlights. Legendary guitar player Steve Morse makes a stellar appearance on Disc 2. Mike Portnoy is solid and consistent, perhaps even a little more tame than on some of Neal's previous work. "Tame" is a very relative term. I think the lyrics are stronger than on some of Neal's previous efforts, and overall, it's just a really fun listen.
Many are saying that "Seeds of Gold" from disc 2 is the best thing Neal's done. I can see how the case can be made.
One could do well to have their very first exposure to Neal Morse with this record. It's much stronger than the previous release, "Lifeline," which had some very high highs but a few lackluster tracks.
T2 is emotional, spiritual, technical and phenomenal. Get it.
So does Neal Morse pull it off? Mostly. First of all, it's technically more of a "midquel", as it expands upon events that took place during the original "Testimony" story rather than following it sequentially. But it's still basically a "sequel" from a musical standpoint, since it borrows some musical motifs from the first installment.
For me, that's probably where this project falters a little, simply because part of the joy in any Neal Morse album is hearing various musical motifs introduced and discovering how they develop throughout the course of the album. You don't really get that here, because most of the recurring themes are leftovers from the original, and that's a journey we've already taken. I certainly don't think it would've been wise to leave these themes out, though; it's just kind of an inherent issue with a sequel.
In a way, what we have here is a progressive remix album. Old stuff interpreted in new ways, plus new stuff. But let's not discount the new stuff; there's plenty of it, and it's all quite good. "Mercy Street" is particularly strong, and there's also a powerful, somber rendition of the classic hymn "Jesus' Blood". Nothing stands out quite as being quite as memorable as "California Nights/Colder In The Sun" or "Wasted Life", but there's also a bit less filler; the original Testimony did have a few dragging points throughout its movie-like 2-disc running time.
But let's not forget that Testimony 2 has a second disc as well. It's technically a "bonus disc", as it only has 3 tracks, which don't relate thematically to each other or to anything on the main disc. Of course, one of those tracks -- "Seeds of Gold" -- happens to be 25 minutes long, and is basically a Neal Morse mini-album unto itself. The real treat, though, is "Supernatural", which is by far one of Morse's best stand-alone songs. It's a chilling pseudo-worship song filled with memorable melodies and intricate layers of vocal harmony. If you ever somehow find this album without the bonus disc, skip it; "Supernatural" alone makes it essential.